AE's take on corona? Focus on the now, but keep looking forward together

06 April 2020

At AE, gaining progressive insights has always been a driver for our business. Yet decisions have never seemed to be overtaken by time so quickly as they are now.

Less than a month ago, one of our consultants asked if we could order some extra bottles of hand sanitizer. “Sure, why not?” we replied, as you can never have too much sanitizer and the annual flu epidemic was right around the corner. Now, barely a month later, the world is battling a virus that is putting our health, our economy and our mental well-being to the test. The tsunami of measures and reactions are something we have never witnessed before – or at least I haven’t, despite my constant state of alertness (as befits my job as CEO) in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

Stijn Vander Plaetse

This week has been a time to consolidate our decisions as much as possible and to continue our efforts of the previous weeks, but also to take a step back and appreciate what’s really important for businesses to survive:

Cash is king: a well-known concept that applies even more to the current situation, where uncertainty reigns supreme and the end of the crisis is not yet in sight. Entrepreneur Daniëlle Vanwesenbeeck wrote a great article (in Dutch) explaining this. Thorough cash planning, which provides an overview of your cash flow evolution, is essential and allows for scenario planning. Indeed, in a VUCA world, thinking in scenarios is vital to adopt a proactive approach and remain agile.

Leadership: in difficult and uncertain times, all eyes are on management in the broadest sense of the word. A coach, manager, director or CEO is only as successful as their relationship with their team . No leader can do all the work alone and efficient teamwork is crucial. Now more than ever, leadership must be based on honesty and authenticity, on offering a framework and supporting each other, but also on emphasizing responsibility and solidarity. Leaders must show the way by walking the talk, too. For example, our executive committee spontaneously proposed to make the same financial sacrifices as we ask certain employees to make, even though COVID-19 will probably turn out to have doubled the working hours for our executives instead of reducing them.

Focus on the now AND the future: as I mentioned earlier, AE have narrowed our focus to guide our decision-making during these turbulent times. Unless there are no other options available, we try to avoid altering existing processes as much as possible. A crisis of the current scale tests our organization’s adaptability, but we must be careful not to end up in continuous crisis management and cause unnecessary changes. We believe each crisis comes with the opportunity to ‘reset’ existing opinions and accelerate proactive thinking. By focusing on a limited number of projects, we aim to not only overcome these challenging times but to come out even stronger than before.

Purpose-driven organization: I’ve always been a firm believer in the purpose-driven organization, and this belief continually guides my own decision-making. As an organization, we are now even more indebted to society than before, and in these challenging times we must look for ways to contribute to solutions in society’s interest. At AE, we have decided to deploy our knowledge in the following areas:

  • We have developed an advanced DATA practice: for example, we are collaborating on a KAGGLE challenge (AI and Machine Learning community) where we use NLP (natural language processing) to help people handle the abundance of scientific literature about COVID-19.
  • We created in just 24 hours to raise awareness of the importance of social distancing, washing hands and not touching one’s face (all crucial recommendations by the WHO). The link to this website has been widely distributed in numerous companies.
  • WAT (‘working apart together’) has been a habit for AE for several years. When it comes to working together remotely, we believe that the key to success lies in an approach that includes company culture, the organization itself and its specific processes. Using various tools, we monitor the mindset and mental wellbeing of our team members and gain valuable insights into the quality of our remote collaborations. From time to time, we adapt some of the tools and we will be offering them (in their basic form) to our customers and non-customers in the nearby future.

The people who make it all happen: employees bring more to the table than skills and experience. Every colleague, customer or supplier is first and foremost a person, unique and full of potential. So, whatever happens, let's continue to interact empathically with one another, and tap into each other's challenges and strengths for everything we do.

Business ContinuityThe start of the marathon is now behind us. We’re well on our way, and morale is good. But for those of you who have never run a marathon before: the going only really gets tough from 30 kilometers onwards. Up to that point, the runners are still chatty and that's exactly what we need to do right now: keep talking to each other, sharing best practices between companies, entering into open dialogues with customers, and so forth. There are undoubtedly many challenges ahead, but I am confident that together we will see this entire marathon through.

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